He had decorated his Christmas tree, the elderly man said. But what he really worried about was that nobody would see it. They didn’t last year, either. He was calling the Samaritans.
As we enter the Christmas period, a time of distracting activity, family gatherings, gift giving and good cheer for most of us, we should pause to remember those less fortunate, those more lonely. Those with unseen Christmas trees.
We are not good as a society at spotting the isolated, as opposed to the ill, or even to acknowledging how dangerous unwanted time alone can be. Most of those facing a solitary Christmas will be old, although by no means all. But we should give them particular thought.
Our home care system for the elderly is conditioned to respond to sickness not solitude, and seems happy to let charities, such as the Samaritans where I volunteer, pick up any pieces. We should think again, particularly as we try to make health budgets stretch in the face of an ageing population.
Talk, as the old wartime slogan told everyone, is after all still the one thing that is cheap, unlike much medication. So here is a radical thought: Council care budgets might be reduced considerably if the elderly were given a conversation, not just a compress, every few days. We are social animals, after all.
A visit and a chat might work wonders. Can it be worse than the brief transactional exchanges that characterise home visits to the elderly by over-stretched local authority care workers? Time is invariably allocated during these visits based on how much physical incapacity has to be accommodated, not how much lack of company needs to be compensated for.
If we could only prioritise the lonely as much as the bed-bound, I believe that we would see measurable improvements to the nation’s health, with all the cost savings that implies. Age UK, the largest charity working with older people, notes that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by up to one quarter. Another estimate suggests it is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The lonely are also far more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. But perhaps the most poignant statistic Age UK has produced is that 3.1 per cent of those aged over 65 go for more than a week without having a conversation with family or friends. That is 360,000 people. And 200,000 older people don’t speak to anyone for a month. In addition, 975,000 older people ‘often or always feel lonely’. Imagine. Hard, isn’t it?
In our logged in, always on age, it seems impossible to conceive of a few hours, let alone days, without words being exchanged; and to know how wearing and isolating it is for a person to be unheard, unspoken to and unregarded for long periods, perhaps caught instead in a bell jar of bad memories or fears.
Loneliness is usually, although not always, a response to isolation. And it is one of the most pernicious conditions. We should take it more seriously. There are no sores and often few visible signs, but it causes as much distress. It relies on empathy and the instinct for sympathy to identify, both sometimes hard to find in our commodified, calibrated age.
But as we enter the Christmas period and give ourselves over fully to family and celebrating our common, shared humanity, we should try to reach out to the lonely person nearby and then admire their Christmas tree. But if we really want to help, we’ll invite them back to look at ours, too.